Friday, July 8, 2016

Islands as Keystone Locales in Children’s Stories

Liam Heneghan

Islands are a type of keystone locale, to adopt the language of the late influential experimental ecologist Robert Paine. They are disproportionately represented in children’s literature and play an undeniable role in shaping the reveries of childhood. But investigations on and of islands were also integral to formulating our contemporary understanding of how species came into being,  More recently, and more ominously, islands have shaped our understanding of how organic forms disappear. Islands are epicenters of  species extinction.

This remarkable convergence of a prevalent theme in children’s literature and in ecological and evolutionary research should not, however, be overly-interpreted.  Islands emerge as important in both literatures  for fairly distinct reasons. No children’s writer, one assumes, writes about islands because they can serve as fruitful experimental replicates for understanding the patterns of nature. Nor might an ecologist chose to study an island because it evokes feelings of comfort, security, and snugness (though she may chose  to study it because an island is beautiful—but this is altogether another matter.)

This caveat against drawing strenuous parallels aside, islands appeal to the the literary and scientific imagination alike because they are discrete, contained, manageable, exotic, quirky; islands are often wild, often subject to large natural forces, and usually navigable. An island pares things down to their essentials; islands clarify.

Ecologists and evolutionists examine islands in order to determine the forces that shape natural communities. But storytellers oftentimes inform us of how natural patterns appear to their protagonists. They describe what it is like for people to encounter islands with all their insular and uncanny strangeness. Islands contain and intensify a plot.

A significant implication of all of this is that in the hands of a skilled storyteller a island story elucidates the island environment. A child may come away from the microcosmic experience of such a book knowing a little more about her relationship with wild forces; knowing more about the world beyond the basic movement of a plot. Stories about islands are a gateway for understanding the nature of islands, the history of our interaction with them and on them. If a child loves an island, the adult she becomes may value them, and by valuing islands she may have a disproportionately beneficent impact upon the world. Islands are stepping stones to the broader world of wild nature.


  1. Should probably think this through before commenting, but have you seen "The Secret of Roan Inish" (or read the book it's based on)? Interesting mingling of mythology, islands, history, growing up, and much else. But there's something there about the necessary combo of nature-supernatural(ish)-island that might apply specifically to kids' affinity for islands, a particular sort of "insular and uncanny strangeness," as you say, that only kids could see/believe in, act on, and use for good in the larger world. Maybe part of what I want to get at is the sense of something *beyond* the natural, yet inherent to it, that can easily come out on islands– and maybe that enchantment is part of how an early relationship to nature is formed.

  2. Great post, Liam. Over the last few years I've developed a fixation with Rathlin Island, between Ulster and Kintyre. Will knows it well now too. I'm reading 'Rathlin - its island story' by Wallace's a tale of ownership (disputed, Scotland/Ireland/Clan Chieftan take your pick) over the centuries. Comfort, security and snugness it is not - massacres a-plenty. Fascinating, wild, quirky yes - and a great place to be. My teenage daughter loves it - going there has become an annual event for us.

    1. Michael, nice to hear from you, and thanks for the kind remark. Yes, there are those islands soaked in blood. Actually, the chapter from which this piece end is a meditation on the Island of Dr Moreau, and on Lord of the Flies. One goes for the comfort, and stay (because you can't leave) for the blood letting, I suppose! I've never been on Rathlin; I'll check out that book for sure.